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Sardine Decline - Real or Imagined?

Tom Marking author badge,

re we in “A State of Emergency” or are we watching “Murder at the PFMC.” The big news lately is the Emergency Action for closure of the Sardine Fishery. It’s been all over the news and was even published in the Wall Street Journal April 12. At the PFMC last week it was all the rage with public comment ranging from ho-hum to the Council is “murdering” baby seals and sea lions in Southern California by allowing the continued fishing for sardines. Never a dull moment at the PFMC! In between my groundfish activities I tried to listen in on this Emergency Action Item and it ranges from baffling to a near circus atmosphere!

Pacific Sardine (Sardinops sagax caerulea), photo courtesy of NOAA FISHWATCH
Pacific Sardine (Sardinops sagax caerulea), photo courtesy of NOAA FISHWATCH

It all stems from a modification of the 2014 Sardine assessment update of 369,000 metric tons (mt) for 2014/15. For whatever reason, a recent peer review of the assessment dropped this value about 93,000 mt to about 276,000 mt for biomass. Understand, based on the assessment 12.2% can be harvested and so the Annual Fishing Limit (ACL) was set at 23,000 mt the Annual Biological Catch (ABC) at 35,700 and the Over Fishing Limit (OFL) at 39,000 mt. After the correction in the Assessment level these three values were dropped to 13,000 27,000 and 29,000 mt respectively. Since the current fishing was already at about 18,500 mt, the Environmental Groups went ballistic and demanded that all fishing cease immediately. Sound reasonable? Let’s examine this further.

The Science and Statistical Committee (SSC) weighed in with the following comments. There are four terms to consider: Overfishing, Approaching Overfishing, Overfished and Approaching Overfished. Are you starting to grasp the complexity of this discussion? I won’t totally confuse you with the finer points but here is the bottom line. The SSC considers the Assessment to be at 151,000 mt from the 2014/15 assessment (with a cutoff placed at 150,000 mt). If they project the current fishing rate from the US fleet, harvest in Mexico, the state of the southern stock, as of July 1, 2015, its projected the stock could be at 98,000 mt. But, since the Minimum Stock Size Threshold (MSST) is 50,000 mt then overfishing won’t occur for about two more years, which is the definition of overfished. In the opinion of the SSC then, the overfishing rate is being approached, but the stock is not overfished or even approaching being overfished. See how easy this is?

So, deluged with all this information, a few hundred pages of public comments, hours of analysis from advisory committees, science committees, State reports and Council deliberation, the Council decided to pass the Emergency action to cease all “Directed Fishery” activity. That still allows for 500 mt of incidental harvest and bait gathering for tuna and charter boat activities. But, to make it more interesting the NMFS Council Representative voted NO on any emergency action since in his analysis no overfishing was occurring, it has not approached overfishing nor has it been overfished. And, to complicate this a tad more, the SSC does not ever change and Overfishing Limit (OFL) mid-season from an assessment; that would be very disruptive of the process for reasons way too complex to try to illustrate in this article.

Flashback: When the Marine Mammals Act was adopted in 1972 there were about 20,000 sea lions swimming around out there, happily eating all sorts of fish, among them sardines. Fast forward to 2015 and now there are about 300,000 sea lions out there scrounging around for food to feed their pups. Due to weather and ocean condition changes, many of the migratory species have moved north and the parents abandoned their pups to go north to where the migratory coastal pelagics have moved, and sadly, their abandoned pups are starving. Overfishing is not causing this; it’s cyclical and has happened since time immemorial (to borrow a phrase from the First Nations).

So, in summary, the reason stated by the SSC for the sardine population biomass reduction is poor recruitment over the past few years, not over harvesting. This can correct itself rather quickly, and often does. Nonetheless, the Council decided to curtail the remainder of the “Directed Fishery” season. The economic impact is about $3,000,000 for the fleet in lost revenue and port values. Whether this action was legally necessary is up for question, but the public opinion and perception of “Emergency” management may have ruled the day. This may fall under the term of “Defensive Management”, something starting to be more prevalent in the Fishery Management Process. So, this is my humble analysis of what I perceive happened last week at the PFMC with the Sardine Management Process. Has this helped you to comprehend this issue? I can only hope!

Tom Marking is a past Board Member of the Humboldt Area Saltwater Anglers with a membership of about 500 local anglers. In addition, he is also a member of GAP the Groundfish Advisory Subpanel, serving as the CA Sportfishing Representative.

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